Sunday, September 19, 2010

Camp Henry Horner

There is so much I need to write about that I think this will be a monster entry. I'll try to break it down into two parts: logistics, then reflections.

We had the most generous opportunity given to us by MGB Services, the company that runs Nikko's ABA home program. We had the chance to attend their Family Retreat Camp this past weekend at Camp Henry Horner in Ingleside, IL. Not knowing what to expect, we packed items from a suggested list and prepared for a camping adventure (not tents, but a lodge-like environment). I was pretty frantic by 5p Friday afternoon because we had to get there before 7p and there was going to be traffic. It took us an hour. We arrived at a camp ground that is past Lake Zurich, toward Baxter (the pharmaceutical company) and the Volo Car Museum in Volo, IL. There was a dinner in the dining hall and then time to go back and unload the Pilot. We had a LOT of stuff to bring inside our room and the staff was great in pitching in.

Saturday was an extremely busy day. The weather was cloudy and resulted in rain that put a damper on some early outdoor activities. We went to a rec hall where floor hockey was attempted. Our kids and a few others opted to play with some balls and cones in an adjoining room since the hustle and bustle of floor hockey was a bit much for my younger kiddos. We headed back to the main lodge (our headquarters) and the kids were ushered to do activities, arts & crafts, and play some sports while we convened with the adults for some speakers regarding special needs, finding quality/"me" time, and improving communication/relationships. After lunch we walked to the lakefront and the kids played in the sand while others went out on boats or canoes. Nikko and Ronin ultimately went on a rowboat with Denis and a helper named Adam while Audrey and I stayed on land. We came back, got the kids cleaned up, and then headed out to another kid-based activity and kids' dinner. The adults, meanwhile, were invited to an adults-only dinner,then later rejoined our kids at a campfire near the lakeshore with songs and smores.

The final day, Sunday, had the kids doing more arts and crafts while the adults got a chance to pack up. Then the families went on a short hike, played some soccer/basketball, and had a barbecue lunch together before gathering our things and heading home. That was our trip in a nutshell. We got to do a lot of walking down paths around the camp site. We also had to carry Audrey a lot, and sometimes Ronin because I feared his asthma would flare up trying to keep up the pace. The weather wasn't totally warm, mostly cool, sometimes wet. We were with other families with SN (special needs) and NT (neurotypical) kids so hearing Nikko whine and cry loudly wasn't a surprise to anyone. This was basically a mini-vacation for a weekend and I will always be so grateful for it.

"Expect the unexpected."
That was straight from Linda H.'s talk during one of our adult workshops this weekend. I have never been put so out of my element before. There were two (plus some smaller) incidents where I had to give things up and roll with the punches, even if I didn't want to. The first incident happened the moment we got to the camp. We drove into the compound and parked at the end of a long row of SUV's. Leibow Lodge was at the other end of a grassy field. Ronin recognized Melisa, one of our former therapists, so he ran over to say hello. I exited the Pilot with just my purse. No diaper bag. No food bag. My first error. We were led to the lodge where Maria from MGB Services checked us in, gave name tags, and gave us the weekend agenda. We arrived just in time to start walking to the dining hall with everyone else. Thinking that it wasn't that far from the lodge we started walking down a gravel path that gradually got dimmer. Denis had his flashlight as well as others, but the further away from the lodge we walked, I knew that going back to the car for our food bag would leave us screwed. We had to roll with it and hope we could find something for Ronin to eat at dinner. The dining hall had eight long tables set up for families and we took up one table. We were also assigned Melisa and a girl named Sarah to help us out this weekend. When the family-style dinner was open for us to bring food to the table, I saw that there were hamburger buns for the chicken patties. That would be Ronin's dinner. There was also some grilled chicken that Denis cut into a few pieces for Ronin to eat. I saw no signs of redness on Ronin's face so ultimately we were in the clear. But I felt so stressed out not knowing what food would be available. I noted that a microwave was sitting on a table with the coffee and that eased my fears of not knowing where we'd zap chicken nuggets for future meals. As a group, we walked back up to the lodge and were set to put our kids to bed. A bevy of volunteered helped Denis go back to the car to haul all our stuff back into the lodge. Meanwhile, I took the kids to our room, #3. Inside it had THREE bunk beds. And a garbage can. Can you imagine how big the room was? I pegged it at 10 x 13 (minus the cathedral ceiling). Pretty small for a family of five, three of which would not be allowed on the top bunks, but it was nine o'clock so getting settled and readying the kids for sleep was the priority. The communal bathrooms had three sinks, three toilet stalls, and three shower stalls. No tub. Our kids would have to be showered, unbeknownst to them. I was so incredibly anxious (and when I get anxious I get crabby, snappy and stressed out) that I felt like I was at deafcon one trying to figure out who would shower first, would they go peacefully (um, definitely NO), and how the heck would these kids fall asleep in a strange place? A text from my sister helped calm me down when she said to reread books and sing songs, show the kids that going on vacation is not unpleasant. That doesn't mean I immediately became serene and happy, but it put things into perspective. If I was panicked, the kids would feel my panic. After Audrey was showered, I announced it was time for stories, song and sleepy time. We had brought the pack-and-play for Audrey to sleep in, thinking she may fall off the bed if not in a secure spot. Thankfully she saw her blanket and [new] pillow and didn't fight being in a portable crib. I read a few stories and prayers, sang the good night song, and did my little exit ritual with Nikko so that he would know sleep was next. I lay next to Nikko while Denis parked next to Ronin. Audrey was at the foot of Ronin's bed. Ronin was the last kid to fall asleep.

I went to the lobby later to relax away from the sleeping kids, but bumped into Maria in the bathroom. I told her that I looked at our schedule and noticed that there were kid activities and some adult free time. "If you guys are going to separate the kids from us, I have NO idea how you're going to do it," I said to her fearfully. Maria grinned, patted my arm and said, "They're going to be all right." I was truly baffled. Nikko may become a puddle of screams. Audrey wasn't even two years old yet. And Ronin? His mood could turn on a dime. How would we be able to go to the adult workshop without the kids?

The next morning after breakfast (every meal happened in the dining hall), it was raining so a planned hike was a fail. Instead, we went to a rec hall where the kids were given a hockey stick and an aide. Ronin seemed genuinely proud and excited to hold a hockey stick. Nikko was accompanied by Melisa and seemed to giggle and laugh when they ran with the stick to hit a red ball. The floor of activity was crowded, but the helpers opened a second room next door where the smaller kids could safely play, and feel safe as well. Ronin seemed angry and frustrated that he couldn't get to the ball with his stick so he abandoned his stick and joined us with rubber balls, floor cones and bean bags. After the hockey, all the families convened in the lodge lobby (about eight families). Maria read the agenda, the aides and helpers started grabbing the kids' hands, and the masses started walking out the door. Nikko turned back to us with some slight hesitation, but Melisa took his hand and kept ushering him out with her. The kids kept walking forward. No protesting, not even Audrey. Denis and I kept watching through the lobby window at the kids walking off with the aides, expecting someone to bolt back toward us. It didn't happen. No one called on the radio to say the Umali kids were coming back. We were stunned and happy at the same time. We sat in the lobby while Linda H. gave a talk, followed by another speaker. The adult free time left us wondering what we should do with an hour+, but we just talked more about future plans. We talked about picture schedules and how that could really help plan the entire family's day. I hope to make a better stab at putting one together that would show what the kids should expect throughout the day. I'll start with a PEC of mealtimes, like breakfast, lunch, snack and dinner. Then I'll fill up the holes with activity PECS.

The kids came back and joined us for lunch. It was after lunch that some activities were scheduled to take place at the lakefront, activities such as canoeing, boating and fishing. Immediately I knew that I wasn't going to ride a boat mainly because I get seasick, and when I feel dizzy and nauseous then my mood falls apart. We walked/hiked to the lakefront and my heart sank. At the end of the grass was a big stretch of sand, and beyond that were the row boats and canoes. Guides were handing out life jackets and preservers, stating that the kids could only go so far up the sand without having to need to wear the life jackets. Would Nikko just want to splash in the water? Would he want to go swimming? What about Ronin and Audrey? What was killing me even more was that I didn't have a change of clothes for these kids if they decided to go into the water. I didn't even have a towel in my backpack. This excursion was totally unexpected to me and I was grossly unprepared. Water-type activities had appeared on the schedule, but with the up-and-down weather I had erred on the side of Plan B, not taking seriously the notion that our kids would participate in water activities. I was on high alert and could feel stress coursing through my blood. I didn't want the kids to get wet and I wasn't thrilled that they would be covered in sand, but there were few options other than turning around and walking away from the scene. We were here to participate and have a good time, and perhaps my family wanted to try out the boats. Begrudgingly I announced to Denis that the kids could play in the sand (damp due to the rain). Do you think the kids hesitated? Nope! They quickly congregated around a large metal bowl filled with shovels and scoopers and began to dig. We took off the kids' socks and shoes and rolled up their jean cuffs. I had some orange pylons and made a perimeter around us. If the kids went near the water, they were required to wear life vests. And since my kids love the water, they didn't stay in the sand for very long. We had to put life vests on each one. Then they started dipping their toes in the water beyond the seaweed on the shore. My internal alarms were ringing like mad because I didn't want these kids to attempt to swim, especially Nikko. Toes turned into knees and suddenly all three kids were wading in the water, jeans cuffed at the knee getting wet. I tried to carry Audrey up to the sand but she started screaming and raced back into the water. I put my hands futilely on top of my head and made an "AAARRRRRRGGHHHH!" sound while looking up at the heavens. It was a moment that I had to give up all my power and just let things fall where they may. Expect the unexpected. Could have been a cathartic moment if I weren't already stressed out watching the kids so they didn't fall into the water. Nikko and Ronin expressed an interest in going into a row boat so Denis and an aide named Adam got a row boat for their eager crew. And they were fearless. I thought Nikko might want to wriggle out of the boat so he could swim in the water but it didn't happen. I thought Ronin would start to balk in the middle of the lake that he wanted to go home, but it didn't happen. When they came back to shore, Nikko started strumming the water with his hands, edging a little deeper. Adam, who was a trained therapist, rolled up his jeans and played with Nikko in the water. Bless his heart! When it was time to leave the lakefront, there was a hose near a grassy clearing that we were able to use to wash little feet and hands. I felt bad that the kids had to walk all the way back to the lodge with wet jeans, but it couldn't be helped. Lucky Audrey started whining that she wanted "up!" so she got to be carried. We got to change the kids and reassemble them before the kids were whisked off to another arts and crafts project. We started doing some packing. The kids were also having a separate dinner from the parents so that at 6:15p all the adults sat around a candlelit table in the dining hall and enjoyed the last night without kids. It was a lovely touch.

Back at the lodge we met up with the kids and I found out that the last event of the evening was a campfire and s'mores at...the lakefront. I wondered if I'd have to bring a towel and change of clothes again! It was really dark so the kids couldn't even see the water. However, there was now a fire pit to contend with. The kids were good about hanging back with us on some benches. Tambourines and maracas were passed around and campfire songs were sung. Sticks were passed around to roast marshmallows and press into chocolate on graham crackers. The aides helped Nikko and Ronin with their marshmallows but they still turned out undercooked. Ronin's s'more was just cracker with marshmallow, no chocolate since it could have dairy in it. When we were all back in our rooms, we gave the kids much-needed showers. There were no protests this time around and each kid fell asleep pretty quickly. Denis and I were able to convene in the lodge lobby with some other parents and reflect on our times.

The next morning, our last, was another arts and crafts time for the kids and final packing for us. We had time for an all-family hike, some sports time to kick around soccer balls and play on a basketball court, and then the final barbecue lunch. Before we left, Maria made sure that we got all the arts and crafts that the kids made, including decorated flower pots, pine cones, a picture frame, and tie-dye t-shirts. What I loved about these activities was that the kids got to do something new and different instead of sitting around the house watching TV all day. On our way home, all three kids fell asleep.

I am so grateful to MGB Services for having us at this camp retreat. I was shocked to hear that it was their first one. I thought it was their sixth annual camp retreat because everything ran so smoothly. Jenna was supposed to be another aide at the retreat but she left the first day, sick. I heard that she had done a lot of the planning, so it's a shame that she wasn't part of the event. There were about eight families that attended but we had the youngest children. Still, the staff was able to be flexible in order to accommodate even Audrey. I was so proud of my kids because they went willingly, for the most part, whenever they were led away to do "arts and crafts." They were real troopers and were able to go with the flow. It taught me that maybe I keep the kids inside the house too much. :/

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